Newspaper notices survive special session

The Texas Legislature’s high-profile stalemate over property tax reform means newspapers will remain the primary source of public notices for tax hearings and rates — for now, at least.

Analysis by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association

Property tax reform — like other controversial high-profile issues considered by the Texas Legislature in the special session — died when the House and Senate adjourned without reaching a compromise on Senate Bill 1. 
Gov. Greg Abbott, who listed tax reform as one of his highest priorities, has not ruled out calling another special session, but conventional wisdom is that he won’t. With  re-election season just around the corner, it’s unlikely the 85th Legislature will be called back to address anything other than an unforeseen governmental emergency. 
The special session began with troublesome wording in the original version of SB 1 that would have gutted public notice as we know it. Texas Press Association member publishers and the association’s legislative team successfully lobbied for an amendment preserving newspapers’ important role in public notice, however. 
The bill by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, initially would have made newspapers merely one of three public notice options available to property-taxing entities. A second option would have been to mail a notice to each taxpayer — an alternative already allowed under state law but rarely if ever used because of the high cost of postage. The new third option would have been for a governmental entity to simply post its property tax notices on its website, bypassing printed notice in newspapers and mail altogether.
TPA maintained that the idea of posting a notice only on a government website has serious flaws:
• A governmental body could easily hide a tax hearing notice or a notice of a new tax rate deep inside a website to avoid drawing attention to it.
• Few taxpayers read governmental websites, and millions of Texans without internet access don’t have the capability to do so. Others elect not to get their information via websites and prefer traditional newspaper notice.
• Governments have a duty to taxpayers to actively inform them of tax rate hearings and rate changes rather than leaving them to search out notices on a government website.
• The original proposal would put the burden on taxpayers to follow the website of each tax assessing entity to stay informed about tax changes.
• The independent third-party verification and the archives provided via newspaper notice keep the tax rate process honest and transparent.
Sen. Bettencourt listened to our concerns and pushed through a floor amendment restoring current requirements for either newspaper or mail notice. Further, a governmental entity using newspaper notice would also have been required to post the notice on its governmental website. Small taxing entities would have been exempted from the website requirement.
Many thanks to TPA members who contacted their state senators about the problems with the original version of SB 1. The involvement of TPA members made a positive difference, and the bill that emerged was more fair to Texas taxpayers than the original.
The issue is almost certain to be front and center when the next Legislature convenes in January 2019. Between now and then we’ll work hard to remind lawmakers of the importance of newspaper notice. A critical part of that will be helping Texas publishers communicate our message effectively to their legislators, so please stay tuned.